Brave New World: The Rise of Mass Man

Huxley’s preoccupation with and concern about the increasing prosperity and numbers of the proletariat found expression in Brave New World. Huxley felt the masses had grown more menacing with population increases and he wrote the novel at a time when it seemed mankind could not recover from the problems of war, depression, and explosive technological progress.

by Laurence Brander

Huxley’s preoccupation with and concern about the increasing prosperity and numbers of the proletariat found expression in Brave New World, writes Laurence Brander. Huxley felt the masses had grown more menacing with population increases, according to Brander, and he wrote the novel at a time when it seemed mankind could not recover from the problems of war, depression, and explosive technological progress. Brander has also written books on George Orwell, E.M. Forster, and W. Somerset Maugham.

Brave New World is in great contrast with Huxley’s earlier novels, which rely on characters, mood and atmosphere, qualities which are achieved by subtle and sensitive writing. Brave New World, a nightmare scientific future for Britain, requires the plain, quiet prose of scientific exposition. All the more because in this technicoloured technological future our values are turned upside down and the narrator must make it easy for us to suspend disbelief. Affection and loyalty are unnecessary, beauty is a synthetic product, truth is arranged in a test tube, hope is supplied in a pill, which by its action annihilates identity. Huxley supposed his nightmare to be thousands of years away but later on, he wondered whether parts of it were not alarmingly near. He returned to his Utopia twice, in a Foreword in 1946 and in Brave New World Revisited in 1958. The skills involved in conditioning humanity continued to interest him; for his Utopia is a reaction to the growth of Mass Man, and the masses have grown more menacing year by year.

In an essay on ‘Revolutions’ he noted two phases: ‘The industrials of last century were living at the time of the population’s most rapid increase. There was an endless supply of slaves. They could afford to be extravagant. . . Wage-slaves were worked to death at high speed; but there were always new ones coming in to take their places, fairly begging the capitalists to work them to death too.’ While already in the nineteen-twenties, Huxley says: ‘In the most hilly industrialised countries the Proletariat is no longer abject; it is prosperous, its way of life approximates to that of the bourgeoisie. No longer the victims, it is actually, in some places, coming to be the victimiser.’. . .

The Utopian Tradition

As so often in the Huxley oeuvre, a subject much on his mind appears in his fiction as well as in his essays. The rise of Mass Man impelled him to science fiction arid the result is still his most popular novel. He uses a formula which George Orwell adopted in 1984, horror supported by a strong sex theme. Huxley took his horrors gaily; Orwell took them savagely. Both books are dismal developments of one of the Utopian traditions in English writing. The other tradition is the optimistic idealism in More’s Utopia (1516), right through to Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), and Wells’s Modern Utopia (1905). The satirical tradition develops from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) to Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and the same vigorous, satirical inventiveness is seen in Brave New World and 1984. Each strain is critical and corrective.

In More, the best kind of human being, his Syphogrants, Wells’s Samurai, would lead the rest towards more agreeable ways of living and there would be a steady evolution towards heaven on earth. More’s Utopia, like all classics, is contemporary. We can still profit by listening to him. He is against the waste of working hours in manufacturing unnecessary rubbish; he is all for a kind of Christian communism to abate our island acquisitiveness; he notes that men are much better ruled by men of other nations. These sixteenth-century suggestions would much improve our prospects. Morris is romantic, less practical, which is odd in a man who used his hands more than More ever did. News from Nowhere takes us back to a dream Thames valley agricultural heaven in which every one is happily at work, doing what he likes and therefore never idle, always diligent. From More to Morris our Utopians are against our English idleness. The atmosphere of Morris is the endearing atmosphere of the youth of the world, when everyone was so sophisticated that society was gay and easy. We are reminded that all our classical Utopias are agricultural heavens in which there is no population problem but plenty of room for everyone. Everyone is well clothed and well fed. Most important of all, it is taken for granted that everyone is sane. The mental diseases which are universal among the human species and which have always prevented our English communities from becoming a society, have all disappeared.

It is our modern preoccupation with social and political insanity which colours our modern Utopias, and makes Brave New World and 1984 so different even from the satirical Utopias which went before. It is ironic that when at last all men could be properly housed, clothed and fed, we are teetering on the edge of an almost universal destruction and conduct our affairs with apparently irremediable lunacy. It may be that our knowledge explosion, with its shattering technical progress, has knocked us off balance and when we recover we shall succeed in imposing control. It may be that the natural balance in human affairs requires that great advances imply equally great dangers. When Huxley and Orwell wrote their Utopias, western man was struggling in the deepest trough of his despair. It seemed that the mental and spiritual life of mankind was so distorted that it could never recover. It was difficult in those decades to see any hope for the human race and their visions give typical pictures of our despair.


In Brave New World Huxley is facing particularly the fear of overpopulation, which since then has become a nightmare. In ‘The Double Crisis’, an essay published in Themes and Variations (1950), he says: ‘The human race is passing through a time of crisis, and that crisis exists, so to speak, on two levels—an upper level of political and economic crisis and a lower level of demographic and ecological crisis.’ He goes on to argue that the one affects the other and offers sensible solutions. It is a very living problem and has been so for a long time. Even in the twenties, the press of people on the earth was noticeable and it was apparent that they were forming a mass. What passes for education had made them so and as early as 1915 Wilfrid Trotter had demonstrated the necessity for new techniques of mass management in his Conduct of the Herd in Peace and War. The most eloquent analysis of the situation was offered by Ortega y Gasset in his Revolt of the Masses (1930). ‘Europe’, he says in his opening sentences, ‘is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations and civilisation.’ He was not thinking of the coming war in Spain or the still more dreadful conflict which was to unsettle the world. He was thinking of population. ‘Towns are full of people, houses full of tenants, hotels full of guests, trains full of travellers, cafés full of customers, parks full of promenaders, consulting-rooms of famous doctors full of patients, theatres full of spectators, and beaches full of bathers. What previously was, in general, no problem, now begins to be an every day one, namely, to find room.’

Huxley and Orwell face the problem of ruling these masses. They look at what we have made of our English democracy and substitute for that insanity a satirical insanity much more odious. Orwell produced a sick man’s night mare of sadism based on his observations of European totalitarianisms. Huxley wrote out of his scientific background and mass-produced his population in the fashion long popular in science fiction, growing them in bottles and conditioning them from birth in all the ways proposed by psychologists. Both heredity and environment were absolutely determined. These bottle products were released from moral tensions because they were so conditioned that none of their actions had moral consequences. They could always escape from reality very easily by the use of the standard drug, soma, which was a great improvement on alcohol or anything else known because it produced no unpleasant reactions and was benignly addictive. The people were always in a state of euphoria because the human spirit had been prisoned and confined in a perfectly conditioned healthy cadaver. ‘And that’, put in the Director sententiously, ‘that is the seat of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.’

The old trouble in human societies, that some are more equal than others, has been resolved. The population problem has been resolved. People are manufactured as they are needed, a few Alpha Plus specimens, hundreds of Epsilons. It is fascinating, because, as in all these satires, it is a twist of known data, with the creative spirit working at white heat pursuing every absurdity the original twist suggests. The normal is the extravagant and outrageous and once the reader has been conditioned to accept this inverted normalcy, opposition is introduced to make the tale. Accidents happen when the bottles are in production and that gives us two high intelligence characters who are misfits. A little alcohol accidently splashed into the bottle, perhaps. The story wants something more, so the Savage is introduced. He was born viviparously, out of a careless Beta Minus who had gone with an Alpha Plus male on a trip to the native reservation, one of the settlements of old type human beings still in existence. A pregnant Beta Minus could not possibly be brought back to England, so she stays to give birth to a son and supports him by prostitution. He is a young man when we meet him, with a strong individuality stimulated by reading Shakespeare; just the opposition the story requires, a romantic idealist in a controlled society.

A Scientifically Manufactured and Controlled Society

The purpose of the book is to give us a full picture of a society scientifically manufactured and controlled and the story is a means to that end. If any reader flags, he will be sexually titillated. Orwell used the same device. Huxley is creating a country according to the prophet Ford, who developed mass production. ‘Standard men and women in uniform batches.’ Electric shocks when babies crawl towards pretty flowers or pretty pictures; ‘saved from books and botany all their lives.’ Erotic play in children encouraged; they will be young for all the sixty years of their lives and enormously potent, and in this will lie their natural happiness. The women will never conceive and everyone can and should be completely promiscuous. It would be unnatural and unsocial to go steady. There are no families and there is no mother love. What we call friendship develops only between the misfits. Average citizens lived under the influence of soma all their lives and therefore without individuality or integrity. In 1932 Huxley thought this was a remote nightmare but already in 1946 he confessed that his brave new world was coming quicker than he had expected. The core of the book is the argument on happiness between the Controller and the Savage. They argue like a couple of Oxford dons on the name and nature of happiness in society. The Savage reveals a power in dialectic for which his past life, one would have thought, had hardly prepared him. Huxley is right. It would have been better if the Savage had had another background, something worth preferring. As it is, he has to choose between the squalor of the Reservation and the spiritless shallow happiness of the world according to Ford. He tried to find another alternative. He sought solitude and silence in a disused lighthouse on the south coast. Despite his continued study of Shakespeare he could not get away from thoughts of Lenina. Huxley later confessed in Texts and Pretexts a small slip there: ‘I wanted this person to be a platonic lover: but, reading through the plays, I realized to my dismay that platonic love is not a subject with which Shakespeare ever deals.’ The Savage flagellates himself to subdue the flesh. He is observed. All the resources of mass communication go into operation and very soon hordes of the public descend upon him. Among them is Lenina, the fair temptress. The Savage makes the escape of the creature that is hurt too much; he kills himself.

The Parable of the Individual

It is the parable of the individual in the mass community. We live in the age of the mass. The politicians, the salesmen, the entertainers, all who batten on the mass exacerbate the instincts which sway human beings as a mass. The decent individual is carried along, still protesting but more than ever lost. In our timid totalitarianism the individual is bruised and frustrated by forces as impersonal as nature herself. In Brave New World and 1984 the implacable scrutiny of the state is directed on them all the time. The ‘proles’ are easily controlled; it is the individualistic party member who can cause trouble, the misfit Bernard and [1984’s] pitiful Winston. With individuals so marked, dynamic progress becomes impossible and both these books present us with the static state. As such states have always crashed, Huxley and Orwell are at pains to explain how the rulers secured stability. . . .

Prophecies Quickly Fulfilled

In 1958, Huxley returned to his Utopian theme in Brave New World Revisited. . . to express his alarm at the speed at which his prophecies in Brave New World were being fulfilled. He had thought that ‘the completely organized society, the scientific caste system, the abolition of free will by methodical conditioning, the servitude made acceptable by regular doses of chemically-induced happiness, the orthodoxies drummed in by nightly courses of sleep-teaching—these things were coming all right, but not in my time, not even in the time of my grandchildren.’ Our gruesome planet was radically different from the gruesome brave new world. ‘Ours was a nightmare of too little order; theirs, in the seventh century A.F. of too much.’ But now, in 1958: ‘I feel a great deal less optimistic than I did when I was writing Brave New World.’ He sees that ‘the nightmare of total organization has emerged from the safe, remote future and is now awaiting us, just around the next corner.’ It follows inexorably from having so many people.

He agrees that ‘for a long time to come we shall remain a viviparous species breeding at random’ and it follows that control must be post-natal; but his book is about the very adequate control now available to rulers and tycoons. It has been found that the best way with men, as with animals, is to dangle rewards in front of them and to give enough to ensure that they go on reacting to the reward system. Men are proving easily corruptible and the very concept of freedom is fading. Free men are being drowned in the Mass, which has been produced by the machines and the chemists. This, says Huxley in 1958, is the urgent problem of our age and all our thoughts about conquering space are irrelevant.

Excerpted from Laurence Brander, Aldous Huxley: A Critical Study (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1970).


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